The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Madison Opera’s “A Little Night Music” proved totally satisfying as both music and theater

February 13, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Larry Wells – The Opera Guy for The Well-Tempered Ear – went to both performances in the Capitol Theater of the Overture Center last weekend by the Madison Opera of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” and filed the following review. Photos are by James Gill.

By Larry Wells

Although I was familiar with the recording, my first experience seeing “A Little Night Music” by Stephen Sondheim (below) was in London 25 years ago. I remember it as a theatrical experience – it featured Judi Dench and was performed at the National Theatre – more than as a musical event.

Two years ago, I saw it performed by Des Moines Metro Opera, and although it was “operatic” it was also sabotaged by a confusing, even chaotic, production designed by Isaac Mizrahi.

I finally experienced the complete package with the recent performances by the Madison Opera. It was a totally satisfying combination of acting, music and theatrical design.

Inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s film “Smiles of a Summer Night,” which in turn was inspired by Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “A Little Night Music” concerns itself with mismatched lovers who are eventually properly paired or else reconciled.

Without going into detail, suffice it to say that the carryings-on are amusing, the dialogue is witty, and the lyrics are sophisticated.

One of the earliest numbers in the show — the trio of songs “Later,” “Now” and “Soon” — set the tone for the evening musically. Each was performed individually by three fine singers – Quinn Bernegger, Jeni Houser (below left) and Daniel Belcher (below right).

In a musical tour-de-force, the three songs ultimately combined into one. Houser’s clear tone, Benegger’s intense passion, and Belcher’s suave lyricism promised an outstanding musical experience to come. Special praise must go to Bernegger (below) who sang while comically, but skillfully, miming playing a cello.

One show-stopper was Sarah Day’s “Liaisons” which was really perfect in its world-weariness. Day (below) — from American Players Theatre in Spring Green — half-declaimed and half-sang such memorable lines of regret as, “What once was a sumptuous feast is now figs. No, not even figs. Raisins.” Or amusing internal rhymes like “…indiscriminate women it…”.  (I am completely taken by Sondheim’s clever use of language.)

Likewise, the singing of “Miller’s Son” by Emily Glick (below) was a good old Broadway rendition – no operatic pretense – and the audience, and I, loved it.

Charles Eaton (below left) as a puffed-up dragoon and Katherine Pracht (below right) as his long-suffering wife were both outstanding vocally and deftly comic.

The center of most of the activity was the character Desirée Armfeldt portrayed by Emily Pulley (below). At first I thought she was overacting, but then I realized that, of course, she was portraying a veteran stage actress – a matinee idol type – who had internalized theatrical gestures into her own character. Her “Send in the Clowns” stopped the show, and the lyrics finally made sense to me. (You can hear the familiar Judy Collins interpretation in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

But I would have to say that the star of the show was the chorus, a quintet of excellent voices – Stephen Hobe, Kirsten Larson, Benjamin Liupaogo, Emily Secor and Cassandra Vasta. They waltzed through the action while sliding the panels and frames that comprised the set, moving props, and commenting on the action.

Never obtrusive but always necessary, I thought they were a delight. The three women got to sing a brief round “Perpetual Anticipation” that is another wonder of Sondheim’s musical imagination.

As mentioned, sliding panels, along with dropping frames and panels, comprised the set. The continuous changing of the panels, the blocking and the movements of the quintet were the creative product of stage director Doug Schulz-Carlson (below). There was often a whirlwind of activity, but I was never distracted.

The costumes by Karen Brown-Larimore seemed straight out of Edward Gorey – which is a good thing.  And altogether I felt it was the best production of the musical I’ve seen.

The orchestra was situated on stage behind the set, which made additional seats available close to the stage. People seated in those rows had to bend their necks to read the supertitles, but the diction was so consistently excellent that I rarely needed to even glance at the supertitles.

Praise is due for members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, and particularly conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by Prasad). I heard subtleties in the music that had heretofore eluded me, and that is always a reward for attending a live performance and is a tribute to the maestro.

I was happy to see a younger audience, particularly Friday night. Let us hope that they were enchanted enough to attend the upcoming production on April 26 and 28 of Antonin Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”

This is an opera I have never seen; and until recently, I was familiar only with one of its arias, the so-called “Song to the Moon.”

But now that I have a recording, I realize that it is a musical treasure that should not be missed. I suppose the reasons it is not so frequently performed are that it is in Czech and its plot involves water sprites. But don’t let that stop you. The music is wonderful.

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Classical music: Canadian violinist James Ehnes and American composer John Harbison are spotlighted this coming weekend by the Madison Symphony Orchestra

February 11, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Internationally recognized and Grammy Award-winning Canadian violinist James Ehnes returns to Overture Hall this weekend to perform the Brahms Violin Concerto with the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO, below in a photo by Greg Anderson).

The program opens with a performance of American composer John Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords, and closes with Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

This program is a continuation of MSO music director John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Feb. 16, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Feb. 17, at 2:30 p.m.

Tickets information is below.

“Mussorgsky’s masterpiece explores the colors of the orchestra — the correlation of an artist’s visual medium through the colors of sound and music. And its finale The Great Gate of Kiev (heard in the YouTube video at the bottom), is one of classical music’s greatest hits,” says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson).

DeMain adds: “James Ehnes (below, in a  photo by Benjamin Ealovega) is a violinist who is completely to my taste. With an absolutely gorgeous sound and consummate technique, he goes to the heart of the music. He will approach the Brahms violin concerto as a violinist’s violinist, adored by the public, by his colleagues and by me for the integrity in his playing.”

On this Friday afternoon, Feb. 15, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. in Mills Hall, Ehnes will give a free and public master class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music. 

DeMain continues: “We celebrate the 80th birthday of the internationally renowned — and Madison resident — composer John Harbison (below) with the first performance by the MSO of his delightful composition, The Most Often Used Chords.”

Harbison’s The Most Often Used Chords is a satirical piece of “anti-art art,” or “found object,” art. According to the composer, the found object that inspired this symphony (originally titled Fli Accordi Piu Usati) were the pre-printed “Fundamentals of Music” pages that he noticed in an Italian music-writing notebook. The work was originally composed in 1992 for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.

Written in 1878, the Brahms Violin Concerto was dedicated to his friend Joseph Joachim and premiered in 1879 in Leipzig, with Joachim soloing and Brahms (below) conducting.

An equal partnership between soloist and ensemble is on full display in this concerto; it is not a piece in which the orchestra serves as mere backdrop. Rather, the violinist and orchestra are a team, collaborating and interacting to recount an elegant and nuanced musical drama.

Originally written as a piano composition, Pictures at an Exhibition by Modest Mussorgsky was composed as a memorial to his friend, the Russian artist Viktor Hartmann, who died in 1873. The suite consists of 10 movements — each a musical depiction of one of 10 paintings by Hartmann. These movements are interspersed with a recurring promenade theme that represents a visitor strolling through the exhibition.

The arrangement by Maurice Ravel (below), produced in 1922, represents a virtuoso effort by a master composer. His instrumental colors — a trumpet solo for the opening Promenade, dark woodwind tones, the piccolo and high strings for the children’s “chicks in shells” — are widely admired. The influence of Ravel’s version may often be discerned in subsequent versions of the suite.

CONCERT AND TICKET DETAILS

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts, written retired MSO trombonist J. Michael Allsen, are available online: http://bit.ly/feb2019programnotes

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ehnesthrough the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the February concerts is provided by: The Madison Concourse Hotel and Governor’s Club, BMO Harris Bank, Boardman and Clark LLP, Capitol Lakes, Dr. Robert and Linda Graebner, Marvin J. Levy, and Cyrena and Lee Pondrom.

Additional funding is provided by Martha and Charles Casey, and by the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: Do Stephen Sondheim musicals qualify as opera?

February 8, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

Do Broadway musicals by Stephen Sondheim (below) qualify as opera?

Granted, putting strict boundaries or criteria on certain musical genres only artificially limit their appeal.

But the question matters since this month will see two local opera companies stage two different works by Sondheim, who got his big break back when he collaborated with Leonard Bernstein on “West Wide Story.”

This Friday night at 8 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 2:30 p.m., on Feb. 8 and 10 respectively, the Madison Opera will stage its production of the popular “A Little Night Music” – a great offering about many varieties of love so close to Valentine’s Day — in the Capitol Theater at the Overture Center.

For more information about the production (photos of it are by James Gill for Madison Opera) and performances, including ticket sales, go to: https://welltempered.wordpress.com/?s=sondheim

(Below are Charles Eaton and Katherine Pracht.)

Then later in the month, for five performances from Feb. 21 through Feb. 24 in Shannon Hall of the Wisconsin Union Theater, University Opera and University Theatre team up to stage Sondheim’s popular “Into the Woods,” based on classic fairy tales.

Find out more information here: https://union.wisc.edu/events-and-activities/event-calendar/event/into-the-woods/

So, do Stephen Sondheim musicals deserve to be included with operas by Mozart and Verdi, Wagner and Puccini?

The Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill) — a Harvard graduate and an opera veteran who worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Metropolitan Opera before coming to Madison — agreed to discuss that question as it relates to her company’s production of “A Little Night Music” this weekend.

Smith writes:

A Little Night Music has been performed by opera companies around the world since 1983, so it is a natural part of the repertoire.

Sondheim himself says, “For me, an opera is something that is performed in an opera house in front of an opera audience. The ambience, along with the audience’s expectation, is what flavors the evening.”

A Little Night Music is particularly intriguing because it is a modern operetta; that’s what the New York Times called it when it premiered in 1973.

The costumes and scenery make it look a bit like traditional operettas such as The Merry Widow, but its story and wit are distinctly modern, with a clear-eyed view of the complexities of adult relationships. (Below, from left, are Cassandra Vasta, Benjamin Barlow, Sarah Day, Emily Pulley and Maddie Uphoff.)

Sondheim’s musical sophistication is on brilliant display; the Act I finale (“A Weekend in the Country”) reminds me of the way Mozart or Rossini finales build scene upon scene. (You can hear a concert version of “A Weekend in the Country,” performed at the BBC Proms, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

I find A Little Night Music compelling for its beauty, style and humanity. The book and lyrics are laced with witty lines, but the underlying relationships are very real, as is the way people stumble on the way towards a happy ending.

It manages the trick of being simultaneously moving and entertaining, with glorious music underscoring it all.


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Classical music: With actors and multimedia, the Madison Symphony Orchestra explores Felix Mendelssohn in Italy this coming Sunday afternoon

January 14, 2019
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming Sunday afternoon, Jan. 20, at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall, the Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) and its music director John DeMain will present the story behind Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4 “Italian” with Beyond the Score®: Mendelssohn Symphony No. 4: Why Italy? (Ticket information is further down.)

The concert is a multimedia examination of German composer Felix Mendelssohn’s travels through Italy.

Starring American Players Theatre actors Sarah Day (below top), Jonathan Smoots (below middle) and Nate Burger (below bottom), the concert experience features visual projections, photos, musical excerpts and a full performance of the Symphony No. 4 by the MSO, with John DeMain conducting, in the second half.

In 1830, a young 21-year-old Mendelssohn (below) visited the Italian countryside and the historic cities of Venice, Naples and Rome.

Three years later, he set his journey to music and composed his fourth Symphony — later to be known as his “Italian” Symphony. Though it eventually became one of the composer’s most popular works, the piece was performed only twice during his lifetime and published four years after his death in 1851. (You can hear the rousing final movement of the “Italian Symphony” in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Designed for classical music lovers and newcomers looking for a deeper look into the world of classic music and the motivations of significant compositions, “Beyond the Score®: Why Italy?” joins Mendelssohn on his travels in Italy and discovers his inspiration for this symphonic work.

Incorporating the composer’s own letters and writings, the program presents the historical context behind the classical piece turned masterpiece.

Program notes by J. Michael Allsen are available at: http://www.allsenmusic.com/NOTES/1819/4AJan19.html

Single Tickets are $16 to $70 each, available at https://madisonsymphony.org/event/beyond-the-score-mendelssohn/, through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the box office at (608) 258-4141.

Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/group-discounts/.

Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $10 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://madisonsymphony.org/concerts-events/buy-tickets/offers-discounts/. Students can receive 20% savings on seats in select areas of the hall on advance ticket purchases.

Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Exclusive funding for this concert is provided by the Pleasant T. Rowland Foundation. Beyond the Score® is a production of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Gerard McBurney is the Creative Director for Beyond the Score®


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Classical music: Flutist and activist Iva Ugrcic is Musician of the Year for 2018

December 31, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

The classical music scene in Madison is so rich that it is always a challenge to name a Musician of the Year.

There are just so many deserving candidates. One obvious example is conductor John DeMain, who is completing his 25th year of outstanding stewardship in directing the Madison Symphony Orchestra and the Madison Opera.

But part of the intent behind such an honor is not just to recognize well-known figures. It is to encourage a broader awareness of those people who do a lot for local classical music but who often fly under the radar for many people.

That is why The Ear is naming flutist and activist Iva Ugrcic (below) as the Musician of the Year for 2018.

As both a performer and entrepreneur, Ugrcic is always very busy broadening her varied career. Being both a player and an activist, she is making a difference, musically and socially, that deserves to be recognized and supported.

Serbian by birth and educated in Belgrade and Paris, she came to Madison where she completed her doctorate in flute performance and also took business courses at the UW-Madison Business School.

She is a first-rate performer who has won a national prize for performing. While at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, she won both the concerto competition (below) and the Irving Shain competition for wind instruments in duets. (You can hear her amazing technique in the YouTube video at the bottom. In it Ugrcic performs “Voice” for solo flute by the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu.)

She now plays with the Black Marigold Wind Quintet and Sound Out Loud, both of which are based in Madison and both of which devote themselves to contemporary composers and new music.

This year, Urgcic also soloed with the Middleton Community Orchestra (below, in a photo by John W. Barker), performing to critical acclaim a relatively unknown concerto by 19th-century composer Carl Reinecke.

This year, Urgcic also took over as artistic director of the Rural Musicians Forum, which brings classical music, jazz, world music and ethnic music, played by outstanding performers to the Spring Green area, often at the Taliesin compound of architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

But perhaps her most long-lasting contribution is her founding and now directing the LunART Festival that, in the same year of the Me Too movement, sought to present an all-women event that featured composers, performers, visual artists and writers.

Such was its inaugural success in 2018 that it won a national prize from the National Flute Association and a second festival will take place from June 9 through June 9, 2019.

2019 will also see the release of her second solo recording devoted to the music of the contemporary Romanian composer Doina Rotaru, even while she is working on a recording of “Beer Music” by contemporary American composer Brian DuFord.

And all that is just the beginning for such a promising talent. We will be hearing much more from her and about her in years to come.

To see her impressive biography, as well as updated activities, video and audio clips, photographs and other information, go to: https://www.ivaugrcic.com/bio

Here is one more thing that speaks to The Ear. It feels important, even necessary, to recognize the positive contributions of an immigrant at a time when the current “America First” administration under President Donald Trump seems so paranoid and negative, so xenophobic and afraid of foreigners.

The U.S government should be less intent on condemning or stigmatizing immigrants, whether legal or undocumented, and should put more emphasis on their contributions and on the long and distinguished history they have in the United States.

Iva Urgcic is yet another example of the talent we Americans stand to lose if we do not accept and encourage the gifts that immigrants bring in so many ways — from the arts, medicine, education and technology to everyday life and work.

Please join The Ear is expressing gratitude and congratulations to Iva Urgcic.


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Classical music: Holiday carols, gospel music and classical music mix at the Madison Symphony Orchestra’s Christmas concerts this weekend — which will air later on Wisconsin Public Television for the first time

November 26, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

You have to hand it to the Madison Symphony Orchestra for embracing the community and putting on a memorable show.

When it comes to celebrating the holidays – and yes, the MSO does use the Christmas word – the MSO does so with a big variety of musical styles and a wide diversity of performers. That might explain why the concerts usually sell out year after year.

Beginning with caroling in the lobby before the concert to the sing-along finale, where music director and conductor John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra don their Santa hats (below, in a photo by Peter Rodgers) and more, “A Madison Symphony Christmas” is a joyous time for all.

Christmas classics are interwoven with enchanting new holiday music featuring members of the Madison Symphony Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the Mount Zion Gospel Choir as well as guests soloists soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez and bass-baritone Kyle Ketelson.

This tradition marks the embrace and start of the holiday season for many people in Madison.

Performances of “A Madison Symphony Christmas”will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on Friday night, Nov. 30, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday night, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m.; and Sunday afternoon, Dec. 2, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket details are below.

In addition, 45 minutes before each concert, audiences are invited to share the spirit of the holiday season singing carols along with the Madison Symphony Chorus.

TV PREMIERE

For the first time, “A Madison Symphony Christmas”can be experienced again in December — airing on Wisconsin Public Television (NOT Wisconsin Public Radio as mistakenly listed in an earlier edition) on Monday, Dec. 17, at 8 p.m., and on Christmas Day, Tuesday, Dec. 25, at 9:30 p.m. 

“Our annual Christmas concert has become a very meaningful experience for everyone involved — the choruses, orchestra musicians, singers and the audience,” says DeMain. “With the Mt. Zion Gospel Choir, Madison Youth Choirs, and Madison Symphony Chorus joining our internationally acclaimed opera singers, and climaxing with the entire audience participating in our Christmas carol sing-along — one cannot help but leave the Overture Hall with a feeling that the holiday season has begun. And hopefully, you will have a big glow in your heart.”

For more information and the full program, which includes the excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah” in the YouTube video at the bottom, go to: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas/

ABOUT THE SOLOISTS

Celebrated soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez (below, in a photo by Devon Cass) has been named one of opera’s “25 Rising Stars” by Opera News.

Lopez has received accolades for her signature role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, which she has performed countless times throughout North America.

Her debut of the role was with Martina Arroyo Foundation’s prestigious summer festival, Prelude to Performance. She has also performed the role with Opera Tampa, Opera Idaho, Ash Lawn Opera, and in her company debut with Virginia Opera. Lopez also recently made her European debut as Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale with Zomeropera in Belgium.

Based in the Madison suburb of Sun Prairie, bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen (below, in a photo by Lawrence Brownlee) is in frequent demand by the world’s leading opera companies and orchestras for his vibrant and handsome stage presence and his distinctive vocalism.

He has won first prize in several international vocal competitions, including those sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera National Council, the Richard Tucker Music Foundation (Career Grant), the George London Foundation, the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation, the Sullivan Foundation, Opera Index, and the MacAllister Awards.

Highlights of Ketelsen’s recent seasons include performances at the Opernhaus Zurich, Staatsoper Berlin, Minnesota Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Canadian Opera Company and the Metropolitan Opera, as well as performances with the San Francisco Symphony, the National Symphony and performances at Carnegie Hall.

ABOUT THE MADISON SYMPHONY CHORUS 

The Madison Symphony Chorus (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson) gave its first public performance on February 23, 1928 and has performed regularly with the Madison Symphony Orchestra ever since. The Chorus is comprised of more than 150 volunteer musicians who come from all walks of life and enjoy combining their artistic talent under the direction of Beverly Taylor (below bottom), who directs the choral program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

ABOUT THE MADISON YOUTH CHOIRS 

Recognized as an innovator in youth choral music education, Madison Youth Choirs (MYC) inspires enjoyment, learning and social development through the study and performance of high-quality and diverse choral literature. The oldest youth choir organization in Wisconsin, MYC serves more than 1,000 young people, ages 7-18, in a wide variety of choral programs. In addition to a public concert series, MYC conducts an annual spring tour of schools and retirement centers, performing for more than 7,000 students and senior citizens annually.

ABOUT THE MOUNT ZION GOSPEL CHOIR 

Under the leadership of Leotha Stanley and his wife, Tamera Stanley, the Mount Zion Gospel Choir (below) has been a part of the MSO Christmas concerts since 2005. The choir is primarily comprised of members from Mount Zion Baptist Church and includes representatives from other churches as well. The choir has traveled extensively throughout the Midwest and has journeyed to Europe, singing in France and Germany.

The Symphony recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations.

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert.

More information about A Madison Symphony Christmasis found here: https://madisonsymphony.org/event/a-madison-symphony-christmas/.

Tickets for A Madison Symphony Christmascan be purchased in the following ways:

 Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Major funding for the holiday concert is provided by: American Printing, Fiore Companies, Inc., Nedrebo’s Formalwear, Maurice and Arlene Reese Family Foundation, BMO Harris Bank, Hooper Foundation/General Heating & Air Conditioning, Judith and Nick Topitzes, and An Anonymous Friend. Additional funding provided by Colony Brands, Inc., J.H. Findorff & Son Inc., Flad Architects, Forte Research Systems & Nimblify, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren s.c., and Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts. The Community Carol Sing is presented in partnership with Overture Center for the Arts.


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Classical music: This weekend, the Madison Symphony Orchestra celebrates the legacy and works of Leonard Bernstein

November 5, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

This coming weekend, Leonard Bernstein (below, in a photo by Jack Mitchell) will be remembered, honored and celebrated by his friend and Madison Symphony Orchestra music director John DeMain in a “Remembering Lenny” concert that explores Bernstein’s musical contributions as an American composer and conductor.

Original works by Bernstein will be performed by the MSO on the first half of the concert. The MSO starts with the Overture to Candide, then moves on to On The Town, and, finally, performs his Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety,” featuring Van Cliburn Competition bronze medal winner and UW-Madison pianist Christopher Taylor.

The second half of the program features Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, the last work that Bernstein (1918-1990) ever conducted during a concert at the summer Tanglewood Festival of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall, 201 State Street, on this Friday night, Nov. 9, at 7:30 p.m.; this Saturday night, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m.; and this Sunday afternoon, Nov. 11, at 2:30 p.m. Ticket information is below.

Says DeMain (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson): “To have my 25th anniversary with the MSO coincide with the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth is special for me personally because of the unique opportunities I had to work with this great American musician.” 

DeMain, who premiered Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place” in Houston, adds: “The first half of the concert celebrates Lenny the composer, culminating in the first performance by the MSO of his second symphony, The Age of Anxiety, which has a dazzling and at times jazzy part for the piano, and carries with it, still, a timely social statement. Christopher Taylor (below), a Madison favorite with whom I have often enjoyed collaborating, will perform the challenging and exciting piano part.”

DeMain describes the final work in the program: “The second half of the concert pays tribute to Lenny the conductor, and his life-long love of Beethoven. Since the Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92, was the last piece Lenny conducted, I thought it would be the perfect way to celebrate Lenny and his great contribution to American musical life.” (NOTE: You can hear Bernstein conduct the famous second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 during his last public performance, just two months before he died, in the YouTube video at the bottom.)

Here is some more background:

Bernstein’s operetta Candide is based on the 1759 novella by French philosopher Voltaire. The well-known Overture is quick-paced, with a feverish excitement that begins from the first breath of sound. Many of the meters are in seven beats, or of other non-traditional types, and quickly change. Each player of the ensemble is required to perform with simultaneously the utmost virtuosity and togetherness.

On the Town is a dance-centric musical scored by Leonard Bernstein based on Jerome Robbins’ idea for the 1944 ballet “Fancy Free.” The story depicts three American sailors on a 24-hour shore leave in New York City during wartime, where each man meets and quickly connects with the woman of their dreams. The musical is the source of the ubiquitously popular show tune New York, New York.

The Age of Anxiety was composed between 1948 and 1949, and is inspired by a poem of the same name by W.H. Auden (below). The 80-page poem follows four lonely strangers who meet in a wartime New York bar and spend the evening ruminating on their lives and the human condition. Subtitled “a baroque eclogue” (a pastoral poem in dialogue form), the characters speak mostly in long soliloquies of alliterative tetrameter, with little distinction among the individual voices.

Composed from 1811–1812, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 premiered with Beethoven (below) himself conducting in Vienna on December 8, 1813 at a charity concert for soldiers wounded in the Battle of Hanau.

The symphony’s dance elements, vitality and sense of celebration are conveyed principally through rhythm. It is not the melodies that are so striking and memorable as the general sense of forward movement.

The Overture lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Randal Swiggum (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends that concert attendees arrive EARLY for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online. Go to: http://bit.ly/nov2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/bernstein\through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-Ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 2018-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information at madisonsymphony.org

The Presenting Sponsor for the November concerts is Steinhauer Charitable Trust. Underwriting for Christopher Taylor is provided by Sharon Stark, “to Peter Livingston with love.” Major funding is provided by: Stephen D. Morton, The Gialamas Company, Inc., Myrna Larson, Madison Symphony Orchestra League, and Nancy Mohs. Additional funding is provided by Robert Benjamin and John Fields, Godfrey & Kahn, S.C., and Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: The Madison Symphony Orchestra concerts this weekend feature three local debuts — by a woman conductor, a Grammy-winning cellist and an immigrant composer

October 17, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Three local debuts will take place this weekend in the three “Epic Romance” concerts by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below).

Renowned Canadian guest conductor Tania Miller will lead the MSO while music director John DeMain makes his debut at the Liceu Theater in Barcelona, conducting the opera Candide in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth.

Grammy Award-winning American cellist Zuill Bailey will make his Madison Symphony Orchestra (MSO) solo debut in Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

And Canadian composer Michael Oesterle will be performed for the first time in Madison when his work Home” opens each concert.

The second half of the program is Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

Performances will be held in Overture Hall of the Overture Center, 2912 State Street, on Friday, Oct. 19, at 7:30 p.m.; on Saturday, Oct. 20 at 8 p.m.; and on Sunday, Oct. 21, at 2:30 p.m.

Here are more details:

Canadian Conductor Tania Miller has distinguished herself as a dynamic interpreter, musician and innovator, on the podium and off. She has been praised for “energy, grace, precision and restraint.” She has appeared as a guest conductor in Canada, the United States and Europe with such orchestras as the Bern Symphony Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Oregon Symphony and the Vancouver Symphony, among others.

Over a 14-year tenure as the Music Director of the Victoria Symphony in Canada, Miller (below) gained national acclaim for her passion and commitment to the orchestra and community. Recipient of the 2017 Friends of Canadian Music award from the Canadian League of Composers for her acclaimed commitment to contemporary music in Canada, Miller has been an example of the impact of commitment and dedication to an orchestra and to the future of orchestral music through creative innovation and vision.

You can hear Tania Miller discuss women conductors in the informative YouTube video at the bottom.(But please be forewarned: YouTube was having major technical issues and glitches last night that affected all their videos on this blog, not just this one. If it doesn’t load when you try, wait and then try again.) 

Zuill Bailey (below), described by Classical Net as “easily one of the finest cellists today,” has been featured with symphony orchestras worldwide, including Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Israel, Cape Town, and the Bruckner Orchestra in Linz, Austria. Bailey has also appeared at Disney Hall, the Kennedy Center, the United Nations, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

In 2017, Bailey won a best solo performance Grammy Award for his live recording of “Tales of Hemingway,” by composer Michael Daugherty. His celebrated “Bach Cello Suites” and recently released Britten Cello Symphony and Sonata CD with pianist Natasha Paremski immediately rose to the No. 1 spot on the Billboard magazine Classical Chart.

His Cello Concerto was the last notable work by Sir Edward Elgar (below), composed in 1919 in the aftermath of World Ear I. Upon regaining consciousness following a 1918 tonsillectomy, Elgar immediately asked for pencil and paper and wrote down the melody that would become the first theme in this concerto.

Despite today’s renown as a crowd favorite, the piece did not achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public’s attention, and it became a classical favorite.

Michael Oesterle’s “Home” had its world premiere in November 2017 with the Royal Conservatory Orchestra and conductor Tania Miller.

The piece is an homage to the great geographical ebb and flow of humanity, also known as the immigrant experience. Oesterle (below) notes, “I wrote it through the filter of my personal impressions as an immigrant, and with the realization that this subject is humbling in its breadth.”

Composed between May and August 1888, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 was first performed in St. Petersburg at the Mariinsky Theatre with Tchaikovsky below) conducting.

Unlike its two predecessors, there is no known program for the Fifth Symphony, save for a recurring main theme heard throughout all four movements. Over the years this theme has become known as the “fate” motive; its original ominous character undergoes various metamorphoses, emerging triumphant in the score’s concluding pages.

ABOUT ATTENDING

The lobby opens 90 minutes prior to each concert. One hour before each performance, Madison Symphony Chorus Director and UW-Madison director of choral activities Beverly Taylor (below) will lead a 30-minute Prelude Discussion in Overture Hall to enhance concertgoers’ understanding and listening experience. It is free to ticket holders.

The MSO recommends concert attendees arrive early for each performance to make sure they have time to pass through Overture Center’s security stations, and so they can experience the Prelude Discussion.

Program notes for the concerts are available online: http://bitly.com/oct2018programnotes

Tickets can be purchased in the following ways:

  • Single Tickets are $18-$93 each and are on sale now at: https://madisonsymphony.org/ax through the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street, or by calling the Box Office at (608) 258-4141. Fees apply to online/phone sales.
  • Groups of 10 or more can save 25% by calling the MSO office at (608) 257-3734. For more information, visit, https://www.madisonsymphony.org/groups.
  • Student rush tickets can be purchased in person on the day of the concert at the Overture Center Box Office at 201 State Street. Students must show a valid student ID and can receive up to two $15 or $20 tickets. More information is at: https://www.madisonsymphony.org/studentrush
  • Seniors age 62 and up receive 20% savings on advance and day-of-concert ticket purchases in select areas of the hall.
  • Subscribers to 5 or more symphony subscription concerts can save up to 50% off single ticket prices. More information is available about the season at: https://madisonsymphony.org/18-19
  • Flex-ticket booklets of 10 vouchers for 18-19 symphony subscription concerts are available. Learn more at: https://madisonsymphony.org/flex

Discounted seats are subject to availability, and discounts may not be combined.

Find more information, go to madisonsymphony.org

Major funding for the October concert is provided by: Mirror 34 Productions and National Guardian Life Insurance Company. Additional funding is provided by John A. Johnson Foundation, a component fund of the Madison Community Foundation, Barbara J. Merz, Selma Van Eyck, and the Wisconsin Arts Board, with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts.


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Classical music: The reviews are in — and they are all raves. This afternoon is your last chance to hear the season-opening concert by maestro John DeMain and the Madison Symphony Orchestra with piano soloist Emanuel Ax

September 30, 2018
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By Jacob Stockinger

Are you still undecided about whether to attend the season-opening concert — this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall — by the Madison Symphony Orchestra (below top, in a photo by Greg Anderson), with world-famous piano soloist Emanuel Ax (below bottom, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco)?

Perhaps the following rave reviews — which all agree on quality of the program and the performances that start DeMain’s 25th anniversary season and the MSO’s 93rd season — will help you to make up your mind.

The program is certainly an attractive one. It features the curtain-raising  “Fanfare Ritmico” by the living American composer Jennifer Higdon (below); Sergei Prokofiev’s dramatic and appealing score to the ballet “Romeo and Juliet” in a suite specially put together by DeMain; and the monumental Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-flat major, Op. 83, by Johannes Brahms.

Here is a link to a longer background story with details about the program, the performers and tickets, which run $18-$93:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

Here is a review written by Matt Ambrosio (below), a graduate student at the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music, for The Capital Times:

https://madison.com/ct/entertainment/music/madison-symphony-orchestra-gets-its-season-off-to-a-strong/article_3b90302e-b354-5e95-817c-23a0dffe6950.html

And here is the lengthy review — with many discerning details about the background and the actual performance — from the veteran and very knowledgeable reviewer Greg Hettmansberger (below) from his blog “What Greg Says”:

https://whatgregsays.wordpress.com/2018/09/29/john-demain-launches-his-25th-madison-symphony-season/

Unfortunately, The Ear could not find an opening-night  review by John W. Barker, who usually covers the MSO for Isthmus.

Of course, you can be a critic too. If you already have heard the MSO concert, either on Friday or Saturday night, please leave your own remarks – positive or negative – in the COMMENT section.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Here are practicing tips from pianist Emanuel Ax who uses software to help correct wrong notes

September 28, 2018
3 Comments

IF YOU LIKE A CERTAIN BLOG POST, PLEASE FORWARD A LINK TO IT OR SHARE IT (not just “Like It”) ON FACEBOOK. Performers can use the extra exposure to draw potential audience members to an event.

By Jacob Stockinger

Even professional musicians can find practicing to be an ordeal.

“Ax is back,” says the publicity.

That’s because world-famous pianist Emanuel Ax (below, in a photo by Lisa-Marie Mazzucco) is back in Madison to help open John DeMain’s 25th anniversary season with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

Ax will perform the monumental and fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto No. 2 by Johannes Brahms tonight, Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

It is a piece that Ax performed live some 200 times before he would agree to recording it.

Here is a link to more about the MSO concerts with the famous pianist:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2018/09/26/classical-music-this-weekend-pianist-emanuel-ax-helps-conductor-john-demain-opens-his-25th-season-with-the-madison-symphony-orchestra/

And here is a link to a story about how Ax, who describes himself as a slow learner and who teaches students at the Juilliard School in New York City, practices. It contains his own tips and also talks about special software he uses to detect and correct wrong notes that is available to students and amateurs :

https://lifehacker.com/how-emanuel-ax-makes-piano-practice-less-of-a-slog-1826402441

And as a follow-up, here is a short example of the many YouTube videos of master classes with Emanuel Ax. This one small passage in a sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven gives you a good idea of the hard work that goes into the 50-minute concerto by Brahms:


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